A Call To Arms – Snippet 29

Bajek was waiting in Captain Castillo’s office when Travis arrived. “Come in, Lieutenant,” Castillo said, his voice and expression stiffly formal. “I understand you want to write up Ensign Locatelli.”

Travis was opening his mouth to answer when the phrasing of the comment suddenly struck him. No, he didn’t want to write up Locatelli. He’d already done so.

Or so he’d thought. “Yes, Sir, I do,” he said carefully. “Is there a problem?”

For a tense second he thought the question had put him over the line. Castillo’s expression didn’t change, but Bajek shifted her weight slightly in what was, for her, an unusually demonstrative show of discomfort.

“You’re aware, I presume, that Ensign Locatelli’s uncle is Admiral Carlton Locatelli,” Castillo said. It wasn’t a question.

“Yes, Sir, I am,” Travis replied. For a brief moment he considered asking what Locatelli’s genetic makeup had to do with following procedure, but decided he was in deep enough already. Besides, he was pretty sure he already knew the answer.

He was right. “Admiral Locatelli and his family have had a long and distinguished history of service with the Royal Manticoran Navy,” Castillo said, in a way that reminded Travis of someone reading from a script file. “His nephew is this generation’s representative to that line. The admiral is anxious that he achieve something of the same honor and distinction as his forebears.” Castillo raised his eyebrows, forming exactly the same expression Travis had gotten from Osterman a few minutes ago. “Do you need me to spell it out for you?”

Travis took a deep breath. Unfortunately, neither he nor anyone else in the RMN needed it spelled out for them. “No, Sir,” he said.

“As you may be aware, there’s a strong and growing movement in Parliament to gut the RMN even more than it already is.” Castillo’s tone was a bit sharper and his eyes were quite a bit harder than Osterman’s had been. Apparently, despite Travis’s assurances, the Captain was in the mood for a spelling lesson. “Men like Admiral Locatelli and their allies are the ones standing up for our jobs. Standing up for your job, Lieutenant.”

Which would mean a double handful of nothing, Travis thought blackly, if the cost of that protection was staffing the Navy with political animals who either couldn’t or wouldn’t do those jobs.

But that, too, was part of the spelling lesson. “Understood, Sir,” he said.

“Good,” Castillo said. “You have a promising career, Mr. Long. I’d hate to have it cut short for nothing.” He pursed his lips briefly. “And bear in mind that there are other ways of dealing with incompetence and neglect, ways that don’t involve the recipient’s permanent record. You’d be well advised to learn them.”

“Yes, Sir.” In fact, Travis did know those other methods.

Sometimes they worked. Sometimes they didn’t.

“Good.” Castillo looked up at Bajek. “Is he still on duty?”

“Yes, Sir,” Bajek said, never taking her eyes off Travis.

Castillo nodded and looked back at Travis. “Return to your station, Lieutenant. Dismissed.”

* * *

The rest of the shift was tense, but not as bad as Travis had feared it would be. None of the men and women in his division said anything, though he did catch the edge of a couple of whispered conversations. Locatelli himself had the grace not to smirk. Never ascribe to malice what can be explained by stupidity, someone had once told Travis, and it was just barely possible that Locatelli wasn’t so much arrogantly indifferent as he was a really slow learner.

Travis hoped it was the latter. Slow learning could be corrected with time and patience. Arrogance usually required something on the order of an exhibition bullwhip.

Still, by the time he started his final check of the systems under his watch, he was feeling more optimistic than he’d been earlier in the day.

Or at least he was until he discovered that the primary tracking sensor for the Number Two forward autocannon was once again miscalibrated.

Maybe, he thought as he headed wearily back to his quarters, it was time to go hunt up that bullwhip.

* * *

“Freighter Hosney, you are cleared to leave orbit,” the voice of Manticore Space Control came over the bridge com.

It was an interesting voice, Tash McConnovitch thought, holding shades of both excitement and regret beneath the official tone. Excitement, because in a system where visitors typically dropped in only once or twice every T-month a Solly freighter was a welcome break from the drab routine of the controller’s job. Regret, because with Hosney’s departure the boredom would settle in again.

Patience, McConnovitch thought darkly in the controller’s direction. You’ll be begging for boredom and routine before we’re done with you.

Or possibly not. The last data file Jeremiah Llyn had received from Axelrod’s spies had put Manticore’s fleet at somewhere around ten warships, with at most a single battlecruiser poised and ready to face combat.

But that data had been old. Dangerously old, as it turned out. For reasons McConnovitch had yet to pin down, King Edward had launched into an ambitious program of pulling RMN ships out of mothballs and pushing the Casey-Rosewood boot camp and the Academy to churn out enough warm bodies to put aboard them.

Still, Edward’s revitalization was a work in progress. While the RMN might look impressive on paper, none of the newly refurbished ships were even close to running at full strength. They should still be no problem for the Volsung Mercenaries.

Though of course the Volsungs themselves might not see it that way.

Fortunately, none of that was McConnovitch’s concern. His job was simply to deliver the data to the rendezvous system where the mercenary task force was assembling. That snide little man Llyn was the one who would have to make the actual go/no-go decision.

“We’re clear of the lane, sir,” the helmsman announced. “Course laid in.”

“Good,” McConnovitch said, and meant it. He was more than ready to show his kilt to this grubby, backwater little system. “Make some gees, Hermie. We wouldn’t want to keep Mr. Llyn waiting.”

* * *

“Admiral on the bridge!” the petty officer at Tracking called.

Captain Allegra Metzger swiveled around in her station at the forward end of HMS Invincible’s bridge. Admiral Locatelli had just entered and was pulling himself through the zero-gee in her direction.

“Admiral,” she greeted him, reaching for her straps. Usually when he came to the bridge unexpectedly it was to take over.

Not that taking over right now would be all that exciting. Invincible was on a shakedown cruise, with a bunch of new spacers and petty officers who were just barely starting to learn the ropes. About all Locatelli could do — and all Metzger herself was doing — was to ride herd on the junior officers and make sure no one did anything fatally stupid.

Apparently, the admiral agreed. He waved Metzger back to her position, floated past her, and braked himself to a halt behind the helm station. “You have a position and vector for Phoenix?” he asked without preamble.

“Ah — yes, Sir,” Lieutenant Tessa Griswold said, her hands moving across her board. “One moment, Sir. There she is. Bearing –”

“Yes, I see her,” Locatelli cut her off. For a moment he studied the plot, then gestured to the com officer beside her. “Com, signal to Phoenix. I want to speak with Captain Castillo, personally and in private.”

“Aye, aye, Sir.”

A minute later, the com officer had made contact with Phoenix’s bridge and relayed the request. Three minutes later, Castillo was there.

“Good day, Captain,” Locatelli said. “You’re alone, I trust?”

“Yes, Sir, I’m in my cabin,” Castillo confirmed. “And I have my contingencies files laid out.”

Out of the corner of her eye, Metzger saw Locatelli smile. Castillo was a good commander, and smart enough to suspect that two ships meeting like this was unlikely to have happened by chance.

“Very good,” Locatelli said. “You’re hereby authorized to open Order Number Seven. Here’s the password.” He read off the fifteen-character code. “Let me know when you’ve read it.”

“Yes, Sir.”

The com went silent. Metzger counted out twenty-six seconds —